What does it mean to be a ‘sustainable’ company?

Amid uncertainties around Brexit and the future of environmental policies, the challenges of running a sustainable business are as relevant as ever. But what benefits can sustainability bring, and what does it really mean to be a sustainable multinational business where travelling the world is an integral part of the business model? In this article, Director Chris Dore talks about what it means to be one of the leaders of a rapidly growing environmental consultancy with a global presence, aiming to operate ‘sustainably’.

Starting from scratch

Aether specialises in the processing and analysis of environmental data, to support policy makers in government and private companies. The company was founded in 2008 by four senior members of the UK’s emissions inventory team, and has grown to over 20 members of staff. Most of us are based in Oxford, but we also have staff in Spain and Canada.

When we started Aether, we talked a lot about our ethos and mission, and how it could be used to drive the organisation forward. Working in the fields of air quality and climate change, we ultimately decided that operating as a carbon neutral business would be the keystone of our sustainability work, and we have done so since 2012.

While we offset any emissions that cannot be reduced completely, the primary focus is always on reducing emissions. Teleconferencing equipment and solar PV panels on the roof help in some ways. But like other service-based companies, we realised that our biggest environmental impact comes from overseas travel. That is when we decided to launch our internal low carbon travel scheme.

Low carbon travel scheme and trains across Europe

For the last five years we have operated an internal “low carbon travel” scheme that rewards staff who choose more sustainable forms of transport. For commutes, employees are incentivised to walk and cycle, and for short-haul business trips the focus is on trains rather than flying.

Train Italy picture taken by Christofer

When we started the low carbon travel scheme, we did not know what to expect. But it made sense to reward employees who cycled to work, or spent an extra hour on the train to get to that climate conference. In fact, it soon became apparent that trains were most preferred option even for longer journeys, bringing direct business benefits that we certainly hadn’t foreseen.

The ease of working on trains has meant less down time for travel, even during longer train journeys. Also, staff have harnessed the potential to combine work travel with holiday time, staying on at the destination for a city break, thus also learning more about our clients, their countries and cultures.

Keeping track of the emissions

Monitoring and recording our carbon footprint since 2010 has been crucial to enable our environmental commitments and support our ethos. But the greatest benefit has probably been the ability to understand where money is spent, and what is not working efficiently. Despite doubling in size in the last five years, we have still reduced our total emissions in several sectors through better travel planning, moving our main office to central Oxford, and helping people work from home.

Aether carbon footprint

Volunteering for a better world

Apart from our commitment to be carbon neutral, we also operate a volunteering programme for our staff. While company days out working for worthy causes are of course far from unique, we also try to go a step further by giving staff extra annual leave if they volunteer for environmental causes.

Volunteering

Quality and environmental management

All our sustainability actions are incorporated into our quality and environmental management systems, with annual independent third-party certifications according to ISO 9001 and STEM (Steps to Environmental Management).

To further ensure our ability to be carbon neutral, we offset our emissions using the highest standard carbon offsets (Gold Standards) that are available on the market. Ultimately, this is the best way to ensure that the money we spend really turns into activities that reduce carbon emissions, but also helps deliver social benefits.

Beyond sustainability

This year Aether turns ten years old, and as the company continues to grow, we will undoubtedly find new challenges that we need to consider and address to ensure that we work in the most sustainable way possible.

While measuring a company’s environmental impact can often be a necessary first step in addressing systemic inefficiencies, it can also help create an environment that is better for the employees. Through schemes such as the low carbon travel scheme, or letting people work from home, we hope to not only operate in an efficient way, but also help people achieve a healthy work-life balance.

In the long run, we hope that all these efforts and ability to commit time for other causes through the volunteering programme will make Aether, not only a good place to work, but also a responsible and active participant in the areas where we work. To us, that is what it means to truly be a sustainable company!

By Chris Dore and Christofer Ahlgren

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